Nothing puts a damper on a wedding like mulling over the financial restrictions. And unless you're Kate Middleton, you're probably facing budget limits. When you consider the price of a wedding dress -- from a few hundred dollars to upward of $20,000 -- remember that you don't want a case of buyer's remorse. So before you splurge on a new gown or scoop up a secondhand option, read on for expert tips on how to save a little -- or a lot -- on the dress of your dreams.
> Secondhand scoop
While a used wedding gown might signify a break with tradition, the concept is gaining ground, as evidenced by the abundance of classified ads on websites such as WeddingBee.com, OnceWed.com and RecycledBride.com. Nearly 17,000 ads were posted on WeddingBee in February, according to founder Cathleya Schroeckenstein. "It's a good option if you're in love with a designer gown and you can't afford it," she says. Try to find a local seller and see the dress in person, or visit a secondhand boutique such as I Do I Do (idoidoweddinggowns.com) in Gaithersburg, Md., which offers consigned new and used dresses alongside new options. If buying local isn't a possibility, Schroeckenstein recommends the following precautions:
* "If the seller won't post a picture, stay away. Get pictures of the hem, armpits, anywhere the dress makes contact with the ground or sweaty body parts. Also be aware of alterations that have been made."
* "Even secondhand dresses can still cost $5,000. Use a form of payment that gives you some type of protection." Escrow.com and PayPal are common choices.
> If only new will do
There are generally two ways to save money on a new, off-the-rack dress: sample sales and trunk shows. Bridal boutiques generally hold sample sales two to four times a year. In Washington, the Georgetown boutique Hitched (hitchedsalon.com) is planning a sample sale for June, and the bridal boutique at Saks Jandel has a summer one scheduled.
While the discount -- usually 10 percent off -- is meager, the perks are the main reason to RSVP. "At trunk shows, designers are usually willing to throw in things they wouldn't normally," says Carin Levine, co-owner of Hitched. This includes creating a split-size dress (for example, a size 6 in the bust and a 10 in the hips), which can save you roughly $300. Trunk shows also provide an opportunity to add straps or change the style of the skirt.
> When to splurge
Regardless of price point, your top priority is fit. "Every bride should look for the same thing -- a gown that makes her look and feel absolutely beautiful," says Catalina Maddox, general merchandise manager for David's Bridal.
Pay special attention to fabric. The best dresses are made from materials that accentuate and flatter the body as you walk down the aisle and dance at the reception. "So many brides are looking at popular or expensive designer dresses because the fabrics that are used really are higher quality," says Tracy DiNunzio, founder of RecycledBride.com. "Go to your local salon and actually feel the fabrics."
As in relationships, the right foundation is key. "The difference between wearing the right bra and slip and not wearing them is immense," Maddox says.
> Last ways to save
Buy based on quality. "Designer gowns that are made from lace are so expensive," Schroeckenstein says. "If I were going to buy a used gown, I would go with a lace gown."
* Take advantage of peak season. "Classified listings seem to peak around August, because wedding season is over," DiNunzio says.
* Look for lower-price lines, such as White by Vera Wang, which is at David's Bridal. "Vera has chosen all man-made fabrics," Maddox says. "She would probably use a silk version of our organza in her couture line, but they look and drape the same."
* Do homework. Before buying online, find the retail price of the dress. "You're getting a good deal if you're paying about 50 percent of the gown's original price," Schroeckenstein says. Pay less if it needs repairs or has been listed longer than a month.
> The bottom line
Consider the significance of the dress you're buying: Will you treat it as an heirloom or will it hang idly in your closet for years? The answer should set the bar for what you'll pay. If your heart is set on a designer gown, find it online and save an average of 50 percent. If you want a new gown, don't miss out on sample sales and trunk shows as an opportunity to save a little while snagging some major perks. After all, getting a deal isn't unromantic -- getting into debt is.